Letter from Karachi

A new Pakistani everyman—Mehran man—is increasingly defining the country’s identity
March 22, 2010
Mehrans for sale: their drivers are key to understanding contemporary Pakistan

Stand on the corner of a Karachi street and the key to understanding contemporary Pakistan passes you every few seconds. It’s a small, 796cc car made by Suzuki. Once known as the Alto, the name was “localised” in 1992 to Mehran, after an ancient Persian deity and an alternative name for the nearby Indus river.

The Mehran is Pakistan’s most popular car. It costs £4,000 in a country where the average per capita income is £550. Most of those in use were bought secondhand. A trader in the northwest frontier province offered me one last year for £1,000. “A bargain,” he told me, “one careful owner.”

Mehran drivers are increasingly defining the identity and evolution of Pakistan—an important shift that has gone largely unnoticed. It is the result of urbanisation, the expansion of the lower middle class and the emergence of a new national identity as the last traces of colonial rule disappear.

In Pakistan, the hierarchy on the roads reflects that of society. If you are poor, you use the overcrowded buses or a bicycle. Small shopkeepers, rural teachers and better-off farmers are likely to have a £1,000 Chinese or Japanese-made motorbike. With mum riding sidesaddle behind dad, a kid in front and two behind, these are an effective if dangerous equivalent of a European family’s Mondeo estate or Espace.

Then come the Mehran drivers. A rank above them, in air-conditioned Toyota Corolla saloons, are the small businessmen, smaller landlords, more senior army officers and bureaucrats. Finally, there are the luxury four-wheel drives of “feudal” landowners, big businessmen, expats, drug dealers, generals, ministers and elite bureaucrats. The latter may be superior in status, power and wealth, but it is the Mehrans which, by dint of numbers, dominate the roads.

The Mehrans’ natural habitat are mega-cities like Lahore or Karachi, as well as smaller cities like Faisalabad and Hyderabad. Over a third of Pakistan’s 170m population live in towns and by 2030 the proportion is expected to be over half.

The recent economic boom has been driven by cheap credit, immigrant remittances, foreign aid and economic reforms. As elsewhere, the growth has been slowed by the economic crisis but not before a huge number of lower middle-class urbanites have got richer. At the same time, telecommunications have exploded, with satellite chains penetrating even remote villages (see “The real news from Pakistan,” July 2009). The newly enriched are thus also newly politically conscious.

What are the consequences of this new wealth, urbanisation and politicisation? Politically, the Bhutto dynasty’s Pakistan Peoples party, mostly based in rural constituencies and led by the feudal landowners, will lose out to the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif with its industrial, commercial, urban constituency. Culturally, the traditional, folksy, tolerant practices in rural areas will decline in favour of more modern, politicised Islamic strands and identities. And as power and influence shift away from rural elites once co-opted by colonialism, the few elements of British influence to have survived will fade faster.

For Mehran man is not a natural ally of the west. He is 30 or older, urban, works as a junior army officer, a middling journalist, a small businessman, a university lecturer, perhaps a headmaster or a lawyer.

Educated outside the elite English-language system, he speaks Urdu or a local language such as Punjabi, Sindhi or Pashto at home and at work. Unless he is a doctor, army officer or civil servant, his English is likely to be limited. This reflects the shift of English from signifier of social status to a tool for professional advancement. When I visited the country in the early 1990s, the middle class apologised for their poor English. On my most recent visit, several elite Pakistanis told me they were ashamed of their poor Urdu.

Mehran man has a satellite television (there are now 43m viewers in Pakistan), likes the occasional Bollywood movie and is not averse to a bottle of cheap whisky, though not at home. This does not stop him being socially conservative and pious. His wife will wear a headscarf or veil, as will his daughters from puberty.

Much of his worldview is close to the “single narrative”—that the Muslim world is under attack from western interests controlled by neo-Crusaders and malevolent Zionist-Jewish lobbies. Like many Pakistanis, he believes that 9/11 was probably the work of the CIA and/or Mossad.

If he can afford a holiday, he takes his family to one of the hill stations in the north. But he dreams of holidaying in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or Dubai, an indication of the shift in economic, political and cultural orientation of Pakistan towards the Islamic world. A decade ago, the country felt like the western extension of south Asia. Now it feels increasingly like the eastern fringe of the middle east.

Mehran man’s sentiments towards India are divided. There is the attraction of the glitzy country seen in films and then there is the India as historic enemy and oppressor. Similarly, there are the freedom fighters of Kashmir or Afghanistan and there are the terrorists: the distinction is based on the identity of their victims. Kill Americans in Afghanistan or get killed by them anywhere and you are a freedom fighter, kill Pakistanis and you are a terrorist. Mehran man is incensed by the drone attacks in the northwest frontier, as much for their infringement of national sovereignty as out of solidarity with poor villagers killed by them.

Mehran man is deeply proud of his country. A new identification with the ummah, or global community of Muslims, paradoxically reinforces rather than degrades his nationalism. For him, Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state, not a state for south Asian Muslims. Mehran man is an “Islamo-nationalist.” His country possesses a nuclear bomb that, as one Lahore shopkeeper told me, even the rich Arabs haven’t built. The sentiment of self-sufficiency and nascent confidence, hardly justified given Pakistan’s dependence on external aid and internal weaknesses, is boosted by the size of the country: in a decade the population will near 200m.

Given the dysfunctional nature of Pakistani democracy, we cannot ignore Mehran man. Apart from anything else, the army is full of Mehran men. During a week I spent with the Pakistani army, the heritage of Sandhurst seemed largely restricted to the whitewashed stones aligned outside segregated messes for senior officers, junior officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks. The links to America are more material—helicopters, jeeps and ammunition—but no more profound. Conversations with officers reveals that their understanding of Pakistan’s best interests differs radically from that which London or Washington would like them to have. As for the other pillar of non-elected power in Pakistan, a lot of bureaucrats drive Mehrans too, or at least did before being promoted.

All this poses problems for the west. Our policy towards Pakistan has long been based on finding the interlocutor who resembles us the most—Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, now her widower—and then trying to persuade them to fit in with our agenda. But the people we are talking to are going to find themselves more and more cut off, culturally and politically, from those they lead, and less and less capable of implementing the policies that we want. Pakistanis are increasingly defining their own interests, independently of the views of their pro-western leaders. And Mehran man will soon be in the driving seat.